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Mob Justice Alarms Authorities

Series of bloody killings as northerners take law into their own hands.
By Patrick Okino
As more than a million refugees in northern Uganda resettle villages after years of war with the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, mob killings of suspected criminals have alarmed officials.

In recent weeks, five people in the Lira district were hung, shot or beaten by angry mobs after being accused of petty crimes.

Among those lynched was a former Amuka militia man, Denis Okuny, whose unit once helped the Ugandan army fight the rebels.

The LRA, whose leaders have been indicted by the International Criminal Court, ICC, in The Hague, has retreated to the remote forests of the Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC.

The deaths in the Lira region have been bloody. They’ve involved the use of machetes, stones, bricks and heavy sticks – much like the brutality used by LRA accused of atrocities across northern Uganda.

Police attribute the killings to trauma caused by the vicious LRA attacks on civilians over the past 20 years.

Joan Pacoto, who heads the Lira regional security committee, blamed local courts for releasing prisoners before they’ve been prosecuted or those they believe to have reformed.

Okuny, a former prisoner, was reportedly beaten along with his friend, Charles Odyek, in the village of Telela after residents found them with an allegedly stolen bicycle.

Eric Otim, another of the victims, was killed in Lira by a security guard when he allegedly tried to steal fuel from a truck.

Petty theft in Uganda carries a penalty of two months in prison or community service.

Sarafino Omedi, brother of one of the mob victims, said his brother’s death was a tragedy.

“All along my brother had not been a criminal,” said Omedi. “It is jealousy, and we shall also take action against people who ended [his] life.”

There has been some criticism of the courts for releasing prisoners, but judicial officials insist the policy helps ease overcrowding and removes minor cases so the courts can focus on hardcore criminals.

Court representatives also point out that sending minor offenders to prison runs the risk of turning them into more serious criminals.

“There is possibility of those arrested for petty offences [become hardened] if they are sent to prison [by mixing] with those who commit murder and robbery,” said Juliet Hatanga, a Lira magistrate judge.

“We are trying to emphasise community service [as a way] to decongest prisons.

“There is also [the] negotiation process where two parties with a case before us … agreed on what [is] to be done [so] they resolve the matter outside court.”

Sakina Koli, a youth leader in the district, said mob justice is provoked by the release of inmates who are not seen to have been punished sufficiently.

But senior Lira police officer Tom Okello insisted that prisoners are released only in cases when the evidence against them is weak.

Mental health experts say that mob justice is a consequence of years of war, which has created a culture in which people are quick to turn to violence.

In order to tackle this, the Ugandan health ministry is expanding mental health units across the region to treat those who still bear the psychological scars of the LRA conflict.

The district police commander Raymond Otim said there was an urgent need to address the problem.

“The communities in northern Uganda are badly traumatised as a result of the prolonged insecurity, and people with bad character should be very careful,” Otim told IWPR.

“We are advising our people who have settled in their villages to desist from taking the law into their hands, but [to] arrest and hand over suspected criminals to the police for appropriate action.”

Patrick Okino is an IWPR-trained reporter.

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